Sunday Book Reviews – 5/31/20

Bookshelf books, photo by Alien Motives

Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953, Farrar, Straus)

This isn’t properly a nonfiction work, nor is it a standard fiction piece. It’s what became known as a “fix-up” novel, which consists of taking a series of related short stories and linking them together with new bridging material. Unlike most novels it’s heavily autobiographical to the point of using the real names of her family and associates and actual places in her columns.

The book consists of a series of anecdotes about life with children, and as such is designed to be immediately relatable for anyone who’s ever had to deal with them. It’s a format which was later used to great effect by Erma Bombeck in the 1970s; in Jackson’s case, the tilt is toward a lighter touch with humor.

Jackson is best known as a master of horror and suspense. Her short story “The Lottery” has been required reading for high school students for more than four decades, and novels like We Have Always Lived in the Castle continue to receive attention (most recently as a 2019 film). This book is anything but suspenseful, but her brilliance as a wordsmith shines through.

Readers follow the family’s move from New York City to Vermont, their efforts to settle into a comparatively small town, and a few year’s growth of the kids. The Jacksons are a family well worth getting to know.

SPQR by John Maddox Roberts (Avon, 1990)

This book is the first in what would become a long-running series about mysteries in the time of Julius Caesar. This book was later retitled “The King’s Gambit” when it became obvious there would be more books forthcoming and they needed to be distinct on bookstore shelves.

The book benefits from lacking the expectation for a series. The main character, Decius Caecilius Metellus the Younger, is a prominent citizen of the Roman Empire who discovers a subversive plot among some high-ranking members of Roman society and works to reveal it. Combining elements of thriller with those of historical mystery, it is surprisingly low on physical action but makes up for some of the traditional chase scenes by playing with the deep intricacies of Roman political life.

Roberts performed extensive research for the series while he was working on his earlier historical fantasies and pseudo-historical fantasies (for a while, he was an author of Conan novels), and as the series continued he delved deeper into Roman history. The result is a few small slips of historical accuracy from the first book, making way for highly detailed later works.

The extensive knowledge he’d gained about historical combat and weaponry rarely comes into play in the book. Instead, the focus of the works are intrigue, and Roberts presents it well. The result is a series of novels in which the readers are able to follow the slow progression of Decius’ career as he chronicles the shifts in the Empire during contentious times. It’s fun and informative alike, and highly recommended for anyone who doesn’t mind five-word names.

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About AlienMotives 1991 Articles
Ex-Navy Reactor Operator turned bookseller. Father of an amazing girl and husband to an amazing wife. Tired of willful political blindness, but never tired of politics. Hopeful for the future.